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Welcome to the July 27, 2012 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE


Rise Is Seen in Cyberattacks Targeting U.S. Infrastructure
New York Times (07/27/12) David E. Sanger; Eric Schmitt

U.S. National Security Agency director Gen. Keith B. Alexander says cyberattacks targeting U.S. critical infrastructure rose by a factor of 17 between 2009 and 2011, with criminal gangs, hackers, and other countries driving this increase. Moreover, Alexander warns that the U.S. is ill prepared to repulse a large-scale cyberassault, rating its preparedness as "around a three" on a scale of one to 10. He calls for approval of legislation to grant the government new authority to defend private U.S. computer networks. Rules of engagement for responding to cyberattacks are still under development by the Obama administration, Alexander notes. However, he stresses the need for some automatic defenses, as well as the president's involvement in any decisions about retaliation, given the tremendous speed with which a cyberattack can occur. Alexander confirms that the president has exclusive power to authorize a U.S.-directed cyberattack under current authorities. The Pentagon previously said a U.S. retaliation against an attack on U.S. soil could either come in the form of a counter-cyberattack or a traditional armed response.


New Method to Encourage the Formation of Virtual Power Plants for Efficient Renewable Energy Production
University of Southampton (United Kingdom) (07/25/12) Joyce Lewis

University of Southampton researchers have developed a method for forming virtual power plants (VPPs) to provide renewable energy production. The researchers support the formation of cooperative VPPs (CVPPs) using intelligent and multi-agent software systems, focusing on a payment mechanism that encourages distributed energy resources (DERs) to join CVPPs in large overall production. "CVPPs that together have a higher total production and, crucially, can average out prediction errors, is a promising solution, which does not require expensive additional infrastructure, just intelligent incentives," says Southampton's Valentin Robu. The researchers used proper scoring rules, a mathematical technique for intelligent software agents in which individual DERs are encouraged to report accurate estimates of their electricity production. They developed the scoring rules-based payment mechanism to aid in the planning of the supply schedule to the grid. "We show that our mechanism incentivizes real DERs to form CVPPs, and outperforms the current state of the art payment mechanism developed for this problem," Robu says.


Hacktivist Attacks Grow as Governments Get in on the Action
USA Today (07/25/12) Byron Acohido

Denial-of-service (DoS) attacks rose nearly 70 percent in the first six months of 2012 compared to the same period in 2011, and researchers say many of the recent attacks have a geopolitical angle. Authoritarian governments have embraced hacktivist techniques to try to avoid a repeat of the Arab Spring uprising that took place in the Middle East. Supporters of established regimes want to stamp out criticism in blogs, online publications, and human rights Web sites with DoS attacks. "We are seeing nation-states use such techniques as a precursor to physical warfare or as a way of silencing dissent," says Bit9's Harry Sverdlove. A recent Bit9 survey found that 61 percent of information technology professionals were concerned about their organization becoming the target of a hacktivist attack. One key to the success of DoS attacks is the availability of botnets, and Damballa estimates that 33 percent of personal computers are infected with botnet malware. In addition, new tools that make it easy to participate in DoS attacks are being employed to disrupt Web sites. "It's hard to predict exactly where [a DoS attack] will strike, and there's a wide variety of people with differing motives who could pull off" an attack, says Lancope's Tom Cross.


So, Who Really Did Invent the Internet?
Los Angeles Times (07/23/12) Michael Hiltzik

The Wall Street Journal's Gordon Crovitz recently reopened the debate about who invented the Internet, arguing that giving the U.S. government credit is an "urban legend." However, Michael Hiltzik notes that ACM president Vint Cerf, who along with Robert Kahn invented TCP/IP, the fundamental communications protocol of the Internet, on a government contract. Crovitz's main point in discrediting the U.S. Pentagon's Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) with the development of the Internet is a quote from Robert Taylor, who was a top official at ARPA when the agency was developing ARPANet, the commonly agreed upon precursor to today's Internet. "The ARPANet was not an Internet," Taylor says. "An Internet is a connection between two or more computer networks." However, Hiltzik says Crovitz confuses "an internet" with "the Internet," as Taylor was citing a technical definition of "internet" in his statement. Cerf himself wrote in 2009 that ARPANet ultimately led to the Internet. Hiltzik says the fact is the Internet as we know it was born as a government project and without ARPA it may not have come into existence at all.


Device Helps Eyes Do the Write Thing
Wall Street Journal (07/26/12) Robert Lee Hotz

French National Center for Scientific Research director Jean Lorenceau has developed a device that enables users to write with their eyes in cursive script on a computer monitor. "It's like drawing with a pencil, but without a tip," Lorenceau says. Users wear a small infrared video camera to relay their eye movements to the computer screen. It has been problematic for researchers to develop computer-controlled systems in which users voluntarily produce smooth, controlled eye movements. In order to overcome this problem, Lorenceau used an optical illusion called "reverse phi-motion," which uses patterns of contrasting dots on a video screen to create a flickering illusion of motion. He says the illusion helps users gain the precise eye control necessary for cursive script by providing a way for motion-sensitive neurons to orient themselves. During testing, users were able to produce legible script on a computer screen at a rate of 20 to 30 characters per minute.


XSEDE Gaining Speed as Year Two Begins
HPC Wire (07/25/12) Jan Zverina

The U.S. National Science Foundation’s Extreme Science and Engineering Discovery Environment (XSEDE) program has made significant strides as it enters its second year. "XSEDE is becoming much more comprehensive in the number and type of resources and services we provide, and you’ll see an expansion of that over the coming years," says XSEDE project director John Towns. He notes XSEDE's first year included a lot of work that was transparent to the user community, including a complete change in the network infrastructure, a stronger emphasis and redefinition of its Advanced User Support operations, and the enhancement of the XSEDE User Portal as an interface to the community. Towns says XSEDE's second year will focus on providing solutions that are designed to evolve with the needs of researchers over a longer period of time. "That is one of our challenges with this project: how do we smoothly evolve the services, the architecture, the support and functions that match the new technologies, the new needs of our existing researchers, and the needs of new communities that we’ll start serving," he says. Towns says new capabilities and new services will be layered on top of what is already provided as the organization delivers new initiatives.


Cyber-Espionage Operations Vast Yet Highly Focused, Researcher Claims
Network World (07/25/12) Ellen Messmer

Internet-based cyberespionage operations cover a vast scope but are highly focused. Dell SecureWorks' Joe Stewart says that such efforts go beyond governments targeting other governments or corporate secrets to include the participation of private security firms under the term "ethical hacking services." Stewart notes that Japan is broadly targeted, while two of the largest cyberespionage groups that "share a large infrastructure" originate in China. He says that as more and more governments become involved in cyberespionage, it legitimizes cybersabotage activity for some private companies. "Other research ... has uncovered a sizable cyberespionage operation carried out by a private computer security company in an Asian country [not China] against a foreign military, presumably on behalf of the government of the country in which that company resides," Stewart says. "This type of outsourcing of offensive hacking to contractors is to be expected given that the market demand for such skills often precludes governments from possessing that talent for very long." Stewart also cites the existence of hundreds of cyberespionage botnets, which appear to take aim only at certain valued targets.


CCC Calling for Papers for Spatial Computing Visioning Workshop
CCC Blog (07/22/12) Erwin Gianchandani

The Computing Community Consortium (CCC) will hold a visioning workshop on spatial computing in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 10-11, 2012, and is seeking participation from experts in academia and government. The goal is to develop and promote a unified agenda for spatial computing research and development across U.S. agencies, universities, and corporations. The workshop will identify fundamental research questions for individual computing fields and cross-cutting research questions requiring unique, multidisciplinary solutions. Experts should submit short position papers of two to three pages by Aug. 5 that list research opportunities, open problems, and grand challenges. An ideal whitepaper would focus on a single area of spatial computing such as remote sensing, computational geometry, spatial statistics, spatial databases, and spatial cognition. The results will be presented to the U.S. National Science Foundation and other agencies to inform possible funding initiatives. The workshop will include presentations from invited thought-leaders and agency representatives, brainstorming sessions, interactive demos, and focus group sessions with spatial-computing professionals. CCC will notify the selected applicants by Aug. 10.


Mapping the Uncanny Valley
The Economist (07/21/2012)

University of North Carolina researcher Kurt Gray and Harvard University researcher Daniel Wegner speculate that experience plays a crucial role in generating the uncanny valley effect. The researchers theorized that adding human-like eyes and facial expressions to robots conveys emotions where viewers do not expect emotion to be present, causing unease among humans. The researchers tested their theory by presenting 45 volunteers with a questionnaire about the Delta-Cray supercomputer. One-third were told the machine was "like a normal computer but much more powerful," another third heard it was capable of experience by being told it could feel emotions, and the remaining third were told it was capable of "self-control and the capacity to plan ahead." The researchers found that people were not fazed by a supercomputer that was much more powerful than other computers or that was capable of planning ahead. However, people presented with the idea of a computer capable of experiencing emotions were unnerved. The researchers believe their findings argue that a big part of the uncanny valley effect stems from expectations not being met.


Angry Birds Meets Bioinformatics
UAB News (07/20/12) Greg Williams

University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) researchers have developed ImageJS, a free smartphone application system that enables pathologists to drag a digitized pathology slide into a Web app and analyze it for malignancy based on color. "We created a new kind of computational tool that promises to make patient data more useful where it’s collected," says UAB's Jonas Almeida. Future modules will perform genomics analysis, support cloud computing, and enable doctors to compare their patient's data to similar cases stored in national databases such as the Cancer Atlas, Gene Expression Omnibus, and 1,000 Genomes Project. Almeida says the potential of ImageJS depends on whether or not pathologists partner with biostatisticians to write modules that add value. He says if that happens, ImageJS could eventually resemble the kind of social coding communities that surround smartphones. Almeida notes that ImageJS is written in JavaScript and features a collection of Web-based algorithms, which give researchers the flexibility to change apps as needed and repeat each other's informatics experiments. He also says ImageJS migrates from the code repository to the browser, which eliminates the risks of travel-related data damage and exposure that violates patient privacy.


Poison Attacks Against Machine Learning
I Programmer (07/19/12) Alex Armstrong

Research by Battista Biggio, Blaine Nelson, and Pavel Laskov suggests that it might be easier to manipulate artificial intelligence than experts generally believe. The researchers say they have found a way to provide a support vector machine (SVM) with data that is specifically designed to increase the error rate as much as possible with a few data points. SVMs are learning devices that are used in security settings to detect abnormal behavior such as fraud and credit card use anomalies, as well as to weed out spam. The researchers assumed the attacker knows the learning algorithm and has access to the same data as well as the original training data. "The proposed method breaks new ground in optimizing the impact of data-driven attacks against kernel-based learning algorithms and emphasizes the need to consider resistance against adversarial training data as an important factor in the design of learning algorithms," the researchers say. The researchers note the method was capable of having a large impact on the performance of the SVMs tested, and that it would be possible to direct the induced errors to produce particular types of errors.


Chasing Science as a Service
Texas Advanced Computing Center (07/18/12) Aaron Dubrow

The Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) has developed the A Grid and Virtualized Environment (AGAVE) advanced programming interface (API), which aims to extend the U.S.'s advanced computing resources to a much larger audience. "When services have been built to that level, research starts moving really fast," says TACC's Rion Dooley. "You can start leveraging manpower and focus exclusively on the science rather than the computation and technology needed to accomplish that science." Dooley says AGAVE is a flexible, Web-friendly platform that enables researchers with little programming experience to add functionality to their scientific computing software. "If we can give thousands of researchers a few percent of their time back, that's a win," he says. AGAVE also gives developers access to some of the U.S.'s most powerful supercomputers to facilitate their research. For example, AGAVE is being used as part of the iPlant project, leveraging supercomputing resources at the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center, the San Diego Supercomputing Center, and TACC. The second major release of the AGAVE API will include support for new types of systems, such as public and private clouds, that will give users faster turnaround times on their experiments.


Radiation Damage Bigger Problem in Microelectronics Than Previously Thought
Vanderbilt University (07/19/12) David Salisbury

Vanderbilt University researchers have found that the amount of damage that radiation inflicts on electronic materials could be at least 10 times greater than previously thought, thanks to a new characterization method that uses a combination of lasers and acoustic waves to provide scientists with a way to look through solid materials to identify the size and location of defects. The new method can detect disruption in the positions of the electrons attached to atoms, which is important because it is the behavior of the electrons that determine a material's electrical and optical properties. The researchers upgraded a 15-year-old method called coherent acoustic phonon spectroscopy to detect the electron dislocations. The researchers tested their technique on a layer of gallium arsenide semiconductor that they had irradiated with high-energy neon atoms and found the structural damage caused by an embedded neon atom spread over a 1,000-atom volume. "Techniques like the one that we have developed will give us the detailed information we need to figure this out and so help people make nanodevices that work properly," says Vanderbilt professor Norman Tolk.


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